Maybe it's signalled by a glimmer of light under a door. Perhaps a queue in an alley that makes you take pause to wonder what the fuss is all about. Or is it the sound of revelry drifting up a flight of stairs in the distance that lures you in? Whatever it is, there's something about the pursuit of getting to a hidden bar – the build-up of anticipation or the knowledge that a drink is somewhere, out there, waiting for you – that we all just can't help but love. Whether they're up high or down below, some of Sydney's very best bars are not all that easy to find. In fact, you've probably walked straight past a few without even knowing they existed. Here are the ones you'll have to hunt the hardest for.
Sydney's finest hidden bars
As far as dramatic entrances go, the Cumberland makes quite an impression. The secret is out, sure, but that doesn't make pulling open the original 1920s fridge door at Manly's Cove Deli any less exciting. Behind it is an operation that has spared absolutely no expense, and soaking in all the elements – the painstakingly handcrafted leather banquettes, original turn-of-the-century brass beer taps – is much of the fun. The rest lies in clever concoctions inspired by Australia's history, the quirky toilets and the unexpected exit.
Sydney’s fervour for this candle-lit basement bar with a whisky collection extensive enough to stop even collectors dead in their tracks has yet to slacken. Head down the alley, turn right and right again, then take the stairs straight down. The apocalypse could well be happening outside and you'd have absolutely no idea, so transportive is atmosphere below the city streets, complete with vintage prizefighter portraits and soaked in the sounds of jazz and blues.
Old Mate calls the 'hidden' bet and raises it – literally – with a killer bar and cracking rooftop at the peak of an otherwise unmarked building. You'll need to scale 102 steps or a lift ride tinged with anticipation, but they're small prices to pay for serious cocktails crafted by some of the best in the biz. Whether you're here to canoodle in a candlelit booth beneath the stacks of old library books or snag a coveted spot on the compact rooftop makes no difference; you can't go wrong either way.
Here's one for those who believe in the journey just as much as the destination. To reach Door Knock, you'll need to conquer two steep flights of concrete stairs (is this further underground than Town Hall Station?) and a very long hallway. You no longer need to knock three times when you arrive at the door with a brass pineapple, but you'll still feel like you've really earned that cocktail when you set foot in the place.
Clarence Street is Sydney's unofficial headquarters for tip-top watering holes hidden in plain sight, and Lobo is one of the originals. The only giveaway might be the echo of Cuban rhythms snaking their way up the spiral stairs. Follow them, and be rewarded with lots and lots of top-shelf rum shaken and stirred by a crack team that sweats the details. Turns out the spirit of Old Havana is and well.
If we had to credit one bar with the revival of the speakeasy, it might very well be Employees Only. The original opened in New York back in 2004, with nothing but a neon 'Psychic' sign to clue the thirsty. In the decade-plus since, the celebrated cocktail bar has opened outlets in major cities across the world, and we got a taste when our very own 'Psychic' sign lit up for the first time at the end of 2018. Excellent cocktails are to be expected, and yes, there really is a tarot card reader on hand.
"Frankie's? That's not a secret bar," we hear you say. That's true, but make your way inside, past the pizzeria and through the main bar straight to the very front of the stage. There's a door on the right that looks like it leads to a fire exit. And it does. But it's also the portal to the Fun Room – a poky hideaway that, for the privileged few who fill the seats, really is just as fun as it sounds, wooden panelling, tinnies on ice in a sink and all. Be warned, "one more round" is almost never how things play out.
Maybe there's a small queue forming on the north side of Bridge Street just off George Street. Or maybe not. Either way, look for a security guard standing at attention, ready to radio down and ask whether there's a spot available down in this debaucherous cocktail den that nods to the so-called Golden Age of Porn and the daggy drinks that went along with it without a shred of self-consciousness. If there isn't, it's very much worth waiting for.
If you're one of the very few people who don't know that Betta Meats on the south end of King Street in Newtown is no longer a butcher, you do now. The vintage patina conceals one of the Inner West's treasures and one of the friendliest bar teams in town. Settle in for a Sazerac at the long timber bar, and it won't be long before the eternal charms of this New Orleans-inspired neighbourhood joint cast their spell.
Even if you look up Papa Gede's on your phone, chances are you'll wander into the wrong laneway or look past the cobblestones into the dark tunnel off Kent Street and wonder whether there's actually anything there. Keep walking and you'll find laidback tiki bar that'll cast a real spell on you thanks to great chat and an even greater Zombie. Bonus points for dog-friendliness.
The name of this subterranean spot is a dead giveaway that you won't find it in the centre of a flashy high street. And while you don't have to dig a hole to get here, you do have to find De Mestre Place – a strip in the bullseye of the CBD that you've probably sped straight past a thousand times and mistaken for the entrance to an underground car park. Just keep walking, look for the dimly lit 'B' on the door, have a seat and bend that elbow.
There’s no semblance of a sign, and it looks closed even when it's open, but that hasn’t prevented people from flocking to this reliable small bar where the cocktails are delicious, the whisky plentiful, good times are guaranteed and the housemade sausage rolls are on point. Swing the hefty door wide open, and you'll be blasted with pretty much the warmest welcome in town from a brigade of chipper staffers who've got your back – and your top-up.
Look for the sliver of a sign with the silhouettes of three skulls (they're co-owners Sebastian "Cosmo" Soto, Dardan Shervashidze and Charlie Lehmann). That's the only indication there's something happening behind a nondescript door sandwiched between a convenience store and the entrance to a hair salon. And boy, it is really happening down in this dive bar dreams are made of. Cognac is the calling card, as are the bowls of corn nuts and Mary's burgers on demand to soak it all up between rounds.
Behind a fully functioning barbershop is where you'll find this schmick bar with a terrarium vibe, so you can get all handsome and then take your new look out for drinks. Gin is the focus, so step to the front of the queue if a humble G&T or a filthy Martini is what you gets you going. And being that it shares the back of a laneway with the Baxter Inn and the Duke of Clarence, chances are you'll be hiding out in this neck of the woods for quite a while.
Grandma's proved to be one of leaders of the charge in Sydney's small-bar renaissance, partly because it is, indeed, a very small bar, but also because it feels like a well-kept secret. Owners James Brady and Warren Burns describe this cosy spot as a "retro-sexual haven of cosmopolitan kitsch and faded granny glamour". We're not sure exactly what that means, but we're totally behind it – and the signature peanut butter colada.
Just about the only thing that isn't classy about the Swinging Cat is the fact that it shares an entrance with a Subway sandwich franchise. But hey, at least it makes for an easy way to recognise you're in the right place. Head underground and you'll find yourself in a world of gas-lit streetlamps and old-school New Orleans-style comforts. They're your cue to order a Vieux Carré, sit back, relax and clink glasses to the Big Easy.
Is it a seamstresses workshop? No! It's Stitch, a CBD basement bar that's been doing its thing since 2011. Whisky is a big part of the offering, with plenty of bourbon and rye to back it up. A carb-heavy carte that trades in hot dogs, burgers, tacos and fried mac-and-cheese balls knows exactly what buttons to push, and a selection of vatted cocktails make for a very spirited finish. It's no stitch-up.
Redfern Continental marked the Arcadia Liquors team's first foray into the world of restaurants, but they just couldn't resist the urge to throw a bar in there. And thank goodness for that. Gunther's, or GDR as it's affectionately known, scores top marks not only for snazzy green velvet banquettes and a mirror ball that's always on, but also for the sheer fact that it's one of the very few places you can score a currywurst in this city. All the cocktails clock in at less than $20 a pop, too.
CBD drinkers have flocked to this rooftop bar since 2012 for its famous lobster rolls and gin cocktails. And while it got a bit of a freshen up in 2019, those two things are still major drawcards almost a decade later. This is an equally solid bet for a quick lunch in the CBD, too, but we take no responsibility if one of those cocktails leads to another and prevents you from going back to work.
Prefer to drink up high?
We're all for a late night hootenanny, but sometimes there's nothing better than bending the elbow with the sun on your back and a cool drink to keep things chill. And we're not alone. Sydney's rooftop bars account for some of the most popular, and hard won, seats in the city, so get in quick for the glory spots with the best views.